Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Warp Speed: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 8, 2004 00:47 EDT



    They came and woke us up about four thirty. I was dreaming about my whiteboard again. Somewhere in the dream, Jim came in the study and began erasing the board.

    “You just don’t get it. There are other things that are more important,” he said.

    Then good old Albert Einstein looked at us both and said, “Mathematics sucks!” He finished the beer he was drinking and threw it at the fireplace. Then he morphed into a large purple emu and ran off trying to fly the whole time.

    Jim looked at me and said, “Hey man, it’s your dream.” Then he shrugged his shoulders and finished cleaning the whiteboard.

    Of course, I was thoroughly sore at him for erasing my life’s work from the slate of my life. But then, Tabitha’s voice came through the haze of the dream and I saw not the clean whiteboard that Jim had left me, rather it was a different one. One that contained many solutions, which were underlined.

    I woke up.

    “Anson! Wake up! You’re having a nightmare again,” she said as she shook me.

    “Yeah, uh, I guess so.” I blinked furiously and woke up a little shaky. She helped pull me out of bed.

    “Did you sleep much at all?” she looked concerned.

    “I slept enough to get me through today,” I assured her. There was a knock on the door and a voice telling us that we were running a little late. We quickly showered and were down the hall for our final flight checkups. This took about twenty minutes.

    For breakfast I had insisted that I would have steak and eggs just like the Mercury guys did.

    “We don’t do that anymore,” Tabitha ribbed me, but that didn’t matter to me. I was having steak and eggs, just like I had planned it since I was eight years old.

    At about T-minus five hours and fifty minutes, out on the pad, the Space Shuttle OMS propellant tank had been repressurized and the solid rocket booster nozzle flex bearing and nozzle-to-case seals joint temperature requirements were checked off by the prep crew, while I was trying hard not to fall back to sleep in my eggs. Once, Tabitha gave me a swift elbow in the ribs to bolster my alertness.



    For the past three weeks I had probably slept about forty-five hours. Something had gotten my old graduate school insomnia back full fling. Tabitha promised to help me keep it a secret, although I could tell it gave her serious ethical issues, her being the mission commander and all.

    The trigger for the insomnia must have been all of the intense studying that I’d been doing. The past six months was nothing but study, study, study, then practice, practice, practice, and then study, study, study, some more. A lot like graduate school in many ways, but mostly in that there is no time for sleeping. It was probably like riding a bike; my body just remembered how to stay awake for long periods of time.

    I tried every trick I knew to combat the problem. Two nights previously Tabitha wore me out on the basketball court, then on the track, and then in (ahem) bed, and she gave me twice the normal dosage of diphenhydramine hydrochloride, which usually knocks me right out. While she dozed off I reread Feynman’s QED and then L. Sprague De Camp’s The Ancient Engineers.

    When that didn’t work, I turned to one of the more credible alien conspiracy investigative books I’ve found. It’s good for entertainment. All of those cattle mutilation pictures in that book confused me. Why is it that alien conspiracy folks believe that extraterrestrials would travel billions of miles just to kill cows, make neat patterns in fields, and leave pink bismuth stains on people? I’ve never really fell for the whole UFO conspiracy thing myself. However, the thing that has always bothered me most is, who, what, and how is all of this stuff getting done? Are there that many nuts who need attention out there or is there more to this thing? I don’t know.

    And how did all the UFO stuff impact religious beliefs? I mean, aliens or gods? I had asked Tabitha what she thought about it the next morning. She looked at me with a sour look on her face.

    “Anson, don’t you have flight hardware manuals that you should be studying?” she said.

    “Really, I need to know,” I asked her.

    “You’re asking about what I believe. Well, I’ll tell you.” She paused and placed her hands on her hips.

    “I believe that nobody has a clue what really happens after you die. Not the Pope, not the preacher at my folk’s church, not some Tibetan monk who has meditated and pondered all his life - no one! I believe that religion is personal and is for every individual to decide for his or herself. Mostly it’s none of anybody’s business what I believe. I believe that public prayer is for show. It should be done in private and kept between you and your supreme deity, whomever or whatever it may be. I believe that maybe one day we might find some of these answers through scientific experimentation and observation.” She paused for air.

    “But, most importantly, and as your mission commander, you better hear me now. I believe that you have spent most of your life trying to get an experiment flown in space and to ride along with that experiment. And finally, I believe that you had better get back to studying your preflight, flight, and postflight checklists before you get the biggest chance of your life to really, and I mean really, screw the pooch!”

    That was the last we talked about religion for a long time.

    That was two nights ago. The following night I had taken her advice and studied my spaceflight hardware parameters. By the time the sun rose, I was going over the mission plans, chronology, and EVA requirements. I had pretty much memorized them in the past few weeks. Studying never hurts. At six thirty I got back in bed and was able to get about an hour of sleep while Tabitha was getting ready.

    This was pretty much my routine for last night as well. Except last night, after studying the mission, I did a little recreational reading again. Mission commander be damned. This time I started with the King James version of the Holy Bible. Actually, I only read my favorite part. You know the part where the space fighter craft powered by four rocket-based combined cycle engines comes down to Earth and the pilot sitting in the cockpit uses the spacecraft’s loudspeakers to tell the primitive Earthling that he must go enlist the devotion of all these various countries. When the poor primitive admits that he cannot speak all of the languages in those countries, the alien inside the spacecraft solves this problem real easy.

    “No problem eat this,” the alien tells him.

    A little robot hand comes out of the spacecraft and gives the guy a scroll with a nanotechnology spread. Once he eats the scroll and the nanotechnology reworks the primitive’s brain, “lo and behold” he could speak the various tongues of these nations. Then the alien pilot spins up the turbojets in the engines making the great rushing sound and then flies off on a pillar of flame from the rocket engines. Cool!

    I never studied the literary history of the theological texts, but those guys could sure give Heinlein a run for his money. I finally got bored with reading and found myself at the desk in our quarters scribbling notes.

    By the time I had solved the entropy equations for a spinning neutron star and got to the part where there is some mass/energy missing due to gravity shielding by the degenerate matter of its interior, a ray of light peaked through the curtains. I realized that I had better go to bed. Then an hour and fifty minutes later Tabitha was waking me up from my Einstein/whiteboard nightmare.



    At about T-minus three hours the complete crew complement, including yours truly, was having a weather briefing inflicted upon us, while a whole bunch of smart guys were busy outside making sure that the SRB tracking systems were being powered up. It had taken me forty-four years to get here. I figured I could wait an hour or two more. On the other hand, I wasn’t quite sure I could make it through this boring weather briefing without falling to sleep again.

    Finally, the countdown was resumed and we left the O and C building for the launch pad. I still don’t know what O and C stands for - I assumed it was operations and checkout, but I wasn’t sure. I know it was in the tons of material I was supposed to have memorized, but I didn’t think it would matter what they call that damn building once I was in space.

    The six of us astronauts began the ingress into the flight crew seats. Tabitha took her place in the front right seat beside Major Rayford Donald, the pilot. After that were Carla Yeats and Roald Sveld. She is a Canadian and he is a Norse astronaut both headed for the ISS for a few months. Lieutenant Terence Fines and I sat in the very back. He was a payload specialist also. He had plans of doing some microgravity experiment involving radar pointing and tracking state-of-the-art for the next generation national missile defense system. Most of his stuff was classified like mine.

    Just why was my mission classified? Wouldn’t the whole world want to know that humans had learned how to breach the speed of light barrier, thus, enabling a whole new era of space travel? It was my guess that it was a political move on NASA’s behalf. If this experiment turned out to be a big blunder, nobody would be the wiser. If it worked, then we could do a better demonstration in a few months or years and make a big promotion of it. There was also the turmoil of the energy system and the possible weapons capabilities that these entailed. And would we want FTL travel in the hands of just anybody in the world right now? What if some nut decided to fly a spacecraft at ten times light speed into the Earth? What would happen? Of course, there was always the fact that DARPA had some say so in this matter, since they funded the lion’s share of the effort. But really, what would happen if some nut did fly an FTL missile into the Earth?

    Well, actually the spaceship would never interact with the Earth because of the physics involved. A couple of guys wrote a paper back in the early part of the decade called something like The View from the Bridge or something similar. The paper showed that no data (which would include matter) could be transmitted to the interior of the warp bubble while it was active due to causality violations. Of course, the authors of that paper had no idea how to create a warp bubble. Just like our electron experiment, we had to set up the electrons to flow just inside where the bubble would be and then turn on the warped field. If we hadn’t done this, the electrons would never have made it inside the bubble. The paper does allow for data or matter to escape the bubble at right angles to the travel direction. We had hoped to see some electrons deflecting off the inside of the bubble and out of its side to the electron detectors. As you recall we had no such luck for other reasons.

    I digress. So, assume this nut flies the FTL craft into the Earth. What would happen? The warp field would push anything, and I mean anything, in its path right out of its way. The warped field would be stressed by the impact and eventually collapse the spacecraft inside the bubble. Most likely, it wouldn’t poke a hole all the way through the planet before it destroyed itself either. The stresses on the warp device would be tremendous - it would become a self-eating watermelon. At any rate, I wouldn’t want to be either the nut in the FTL craft or an innocent unsuspecting bystander on Earth who was walking down the street of some city a hundred miles away from impact. The damage could be catastrophic. Maybe that is why my mission is classified. That led me to wondering what if it wasn’t a meteorite that killed the dinosaurs. What if it was a spacecraft that ran on iridium? The science fiction story possibilities here were outrageous.

    My mind was spinning with these possibilities. Once they got me strapped in after ingress I had nothing to do really but lie there on my back anyway. During the Orbiter close-out procedure a light came on, back at the O and C building I assumed, that said there was a pressure leak in the crew module. The engineers and technicians outside the spacecraft on the tower attempted several times to verify if the light was correct or not. This took about three extra hours.

    Apparently, the entire payload bay had to be brought to a particular pressure and temperature before they could make an accurate measurement. Boy, it sure will be nice when we develop spaceships like in the movies, where we just hop in and fly off to Dagobah or Naboo, or to pick up our date, the green animal woman slave from Orion. Until then, space travel will be damned complicated, risky, expensive, inconvenient, time consuming, difficult, and a hell of a lot more uncomfortable. Outside the spacecraft there were smart folks running around completing complicated tasks that took three Master’s degrees in engineering just to qualify to watch. I didn’t really know about all of this because by then my mind had stopped spinning. The adrenaline rush of being on the launch pad had worn off and I had fallen sound asleep. In fact, all but the flight surgeon cut my mic because I was snoring so loudly.

    T-minus nine minutes and holding. I woke up to, “Dr. Clemons….Anson!”

    “Um hem…Payload Specialist Clemons is go, Flight!” I snapped. Tabitha held back a giggle.

    “Glad to hear it, Anson. I was beginning to think you were going to sleep through the whole mission.” I could just imagine the smile on her face. I didn’t respond further. The next eight or so minutes were exciting. The vocal traffic picked up between launch control and the commander and pilot seats.

    To me it was mostly a great big blur. At T-minus four minutes I recall hearing something about “Verify SSME valve movement in the close direction.”

    “Verify SSME valve movement in the close direction. Check!” Major Donald replied.

    Then at T-minus two minutes and fifty seconds there was something about terminating the GOX vent hood purge. And transfer the PRSD to internal reactants. Tabitha ordered all of us to close our visors and then rechecked the LH2 replenish. Then a lot of things on the checklist began zooming by, very fast.






    You get the idea.

    Finally, at twenty seconds things started to happen that I could feel, physically through small vibrations or large jolts. Down below us the launch pad exhaust reflection pool was being flooded with water to suppress the sound waves from the lift-off. Just ten seconds later the SRB safety inhibits were removed. Three point four seconds after that main engine three was given the start command. My teeth started chattering as I was lunged forward then backward violently. The ship had jumped about a meter. I had been warned that the Shuttle would sway a meter or two at main engine firing. We affectionately refer to this as the “twang” because the initial reaction of the spacecraft structure is to “twang” like a tuning fork when it is struck. To an outside observer, the shuttle seems to sway a bit. But to an inside observer…

    “Sway hell,” I mumbled to myself. It was more like being thrown in a car wreck.

    Nine seconds later I couldn’t hear a thing and I felt like I weighed five hundred and seventy pounds or more. What a ride! I tried to raise my arms once just to test how heavy they were. It wasn’t easy. I was even more impressed by the space jockeys in the front two seats. I could barely blink. How the heck were they flying this thing? A few seconds later we went through throttle up and then to SRB separation and I couldn’t remember a happier day in my life. This is what I had always wanted to do since I was a kid.

    A moment of calm came over me. I was in a daze and things around me seemed like they weren’t real but more of a dream. When the final jolt from the External Tank being dropped hit me, I was sure this was real. As the Orbiter made its way to a stable orbit in low earth orbit (LEO) I really had nothing to do, for the next few minutes anyway. So, I went back to sleep.

    When Fines finally woke me up we were at stable LEO and were given the okay to get out of our flight gear. We helped each other with our suits as we played with the microgravity effects on things. Like my stomach for instance. I lost my steak and eggs almost immediately. Fines wasn’t amused. So, I threw up on him again.

    This time he was amused to the point where he lost his breakfast. We had a lot of fun repeating this procedure for the next hour or two. Finally, the nausea subsided to drunken spins. I wished that I had some of my grandmother’s “dizzy pills.” I hadn’t spun like that since playing quarters with tequila that night in undergraduate school after we won the Iron Bowl.

    After several hours of the spins followed by nausea followed by a severe pain in my ego, all of the symptoms disappeared and I felt wonderful. I even offered to help clean up but the flight surgeon had ordered both Fines and myself to take a shot of motion sickness medication and try to take a nap. I slept like a baby. In other words, I pissed and moaned the whole time.

    A few hours later Tabitha wandered, or drifted rather, back to see me. I was absolutely fine at this point, showing no symptoms other than feeling like a kid on his birthday. In fact, I was near the aft viewport looking down at the Earth in awe. She actually startled me when she came up behind me.

    “Feeling better?”

    “Yeah, lots!” I assured her. She put her hand on my shoulder and steadied herself. I still hadn’t been able to do that. What a pro this Colonel Ames was.

    “Beautiful, isn’t it? I’ll never get tired of seeing that.” She looked at me with her puppy dog eyes then kissed me on the cheek. She whispered in my ear, “Feel better.” Tabitha kicked of the wall and did a backward flip into a Superman style flight in the other direction. She looked back over her shoulder at me. “Since you seem to be feeling up to it, why don’t you contact your ground support console and go through a post launch and preflight check of your experiment hardware as per the mission schedule? You’re about four hours behind. And do me a favor.”

    “Yeah, sure. What do you need?” I asked.

    “Stop looking out the window until you’re caught up and back on the mission timeline,” she scolded me with the Colonel voice. I was tempted to say, “Yes, Colonel!” but thought better of it.

    I found my way to my laptop and brought it online for checklists. Velocroing in and donning my headset, I punched up the frequency for my ground support console operator. We were somewhere over the Indian Ocean at the time but either ground relay or TDRS would patch the signal back home. Jim was riding the console back at the Huntsville Operations Support Center or HOSC as it is affectionately referred to.

    “Hi Jim! I guess I need to make up some lost time here and get the post launch and preflight started,” I told him.

    “I hear you are bulimic these days, trying to fit in a new prom dress,” Jim kidded me.

    “Just trying to watch my girlish figure. You know how it is. Actually, I think the colonel slipped some ipecac into my steak and eggs. How’s everyone dirtside?”

    “For the most part better than you. Let’s get started.”

    “Roger that, Jim. Okay, I’ve got no outside tolerance range parameters from my sensor suite here. Does your telemetry agree?”

    The postlaunch and preflight took the next three or so hours to assure each of us that the components of the warp drive demonstrator, we had been calling Zephram, had indeed survived the launch and the exposure to the space environment at LEO. No powered tests other than the motherboard of the spacecraft bus and the sensor suite could be made because the fields created by the ECC devices would be so large that the internal instruments of the Orbiter would be affected. That would be bad. Also, the device was in five separate pieces in the Payload Bay and wasn’t an integrated spacecraft at this point. Jim and I wished Zephram a good night and I said I would chat with Jim in two sleep cycles.



    We had to make a pit stop at the ISS before construction of Zephram could begin. I had completed my checklists and I was now a fifth wheel. I located Colonel Ames in the middeck eating area.

    “Payload Specialist Clemons on schedule Colonel.” I saluted her and laughed. She didn’t seem amused.

    “Can it, Anson. Have you eaten anything?”

    “Uh, not sure that’s a good idea.” I hesitated at the thought of nausea and spins coming back.

    “We don’t need you passing out from low blood sugar. Eat!” she more or less ordered me. I wondered if she was giving the other astronauts as much of her attention or if I was just being a big baby - the word rookie came to mind.

    “Okay, I’ll eat. Just stop pampering me okay.”

    “Anson.” She clinched her jaw and I could tell she was changing her mind about what she was going to say. She started over.

    “Listen. Just do your job, okay? No ego. If you feel the least bit funny, I don’t want you on an EVA barfing all in your suit. Just do your job. I am doing mine by telling you this.”

    “We have nearly two days. I have acclimated almost completely now. I’ll be fine,” I told her. To prove it I squeezed out a bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watched it float in front of me at over eighteen thousand miles per hour. Since I was moving along at the same speed and Newton’s First Law – or in General Relativity speak, we were on the same geodesic - was working as expected, I leaned forward and then gulped it down. No problem. I finished my first meal in microgravity and prepared for a sleep cycle. Tabitha didn’t say two more words to me that day.

    Fines, on the other hand, must have been feeling better too. He must also have been bored. He talked endlessly about his super polymer that when super cooled allowed for state-of-the-art piezoelectric micromotion control. His work would enable a whole new era of pointing accuracy. Not only would it be beneficial to military applications but to any space based platform. A modification of the Next Generation Space Telescope with his device would increase the camera long-term exposure times by a factor of ten to a hundred. This in turn would increase the number of objects that deep sky astronomy would be able to image by orders of magnitude.

    It was all very interesting and exciting. But, thank God he finally shut up! I presently dozed off for my first real sleep cycle in space. The nap I had previously didn’t count because I’d been sick out of my mind. This time I had no trouble getting comfortable and dozing off. What a relief from the past few weeks. Tomorrow the ISS, I thought calmly.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image